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Patagonia’s pure play for innovation

by on
in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor outfitter Patagonia, is the very definition of a late bloomer.

Moving at age 8 to California with his French-Canadian parents, Chouinard was at first a loner, roaming outdoors by himself.

Eventually, Chouinard fell in with fellow “misfits” in falconry and climbing. What they sorely needed was gear, so the kid who had liked only one class in school—shop—built a forge in his folks’ garage and eked out a living by forging pitons to anchor climbing ropes. He lived on a “dirtbag” level for years.

He’s never cared about growth. Chouinard insisted on making the most innovative gear with the least impact on the environment—on the door to Patagonia’s headquarters is written, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet”—and ran his shop as a vehicle to support his lifestyle (he surfs about 200 days a year). He figured that if he did this right, the money would come. And it did.

Now in his 70s, Chouinard admits in his memoir, Let My People Go Surfing, that he never could have played a bottom-line game. Yet Patagonia, with $500 million in revenues last year, has become a giant among outfitters.

His secrets:
  • He innovates. In 1977, Patagonia unveiled the first polyester fleece jacket. Now it has rolled out an advanced wet suit and has a line of seamless clothes. Decades before recycling became popular, Patagonia reused materials.

  • He’s a leading employer. Patagonia was one of the first U.S. companies to offer on-site day care, flextime and parental leave.

  • He’s a perfectionist. Despite his laid-back manner, Chouinard demands excellence. “People in this company would run through walls for him,” his CEO said.

  • He’s an optimist. This despite the fact that Chouinard thinks mankind is killing the planet. “There’s a race between running out of water, topsoil or petroleum,” he says. Still, “I never get depressed, even though I know that everything’s going to hell.”
—Adapted from “Éminence Green,” Susan Casey, Fortune.

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